Unusually shaped tree (Ficus benghalensis, or F. indica) of the fig genus in the mulberry family, native to tropical Asia. Aerial roots that develop from its branches descend and take root in the soil to become new trunks. The banyan reaches a height of up to 100 ft (30 m) and spreads laterally indefinitely. One tree may in time assume the appearance of a very dense thicket as a result of the tangle of roots and trunks.
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A banyan is a fig that starts its life as an epiphyte when its seeds germinate in the cracks and crevices on a host tree (or on structures like buildings and bridges). "Banyan" often refers specifically to the species Ficus benghalensis, though the term has been generalized to include all figs that share a unique life cycle, and systematically to refer to the subgenus Urostigma. The seeds of banyans are dispersed by fruit-eating birds. The seeds germinate and send down roots towards the ground, and may envelope part of the host tree or building structure with their roots, giving them the casual name of "strangler fig". The "strangling" growth habit is found in a number of tropical forest species, particularly of the genus Ficus, that compete for light. Any Ficus species showing this habit may be termed a strangler fig.
Older banyan trees are characterized by their aerial prop roots which grow into thick woody trunks which, with age, can become indistinguishable from the main trunk. Old trees can spread out laterally using these prop roots to cover a wide area. The largest such tree is now found in Kolkata in India. One of the most famous of banyan trees was planted in Kabirvad, Gujarat. Records show that Kabirvad is more than 300 years old. Another famous banyan tree was planted in 1873 in Lahaina's Courthouse Square in Hawai'i, and has now grown to cover two-thirds of an acre.
Like other Fig species (which includes the common edible fig Ficus carica), banyans have unique fruit structures and are dependent on fig wasps for reproduction. Banyan, Ficus benghalensis or the Indian Fig Tree is the National tree of India.
In the Gujarati language, banyan means "merchant", not "tree". The Portuguese picked up the word to refer specifically to Hindu merchants and passed it along to the English as early as 1599 with the same meaning. By 1634, English writers began to tell of the banyan tree, a tree under which Hindu merchants would conduct their business. The tree provided a shaded place for a village meeting or for merchants to sell their goods. Eventually banyan came to mean the tree itself.
The proper noun Banyan refers specifically to the species F. benghalensis, which can grow into a giant tree covering several hectares. Over time, the name became generalized to all strangler figs. It appears that "banyan" is the more common term in Asia, Australia and Oceania, while "strangler fig" is more often used in the Americas and Africa. There are many banyan species, including:
Due to the complex structure of the roots and extensive branching, the banyan is extensively used for creating Bonsai. Taiwan's oldest living bonsai is a 240-year-old banyan housed in Tainan.
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